At the time of this writing, it is May 15, 2021 that is Sol 83 for the Perseverance “Percy” Rover on Mars. Last month, we witnessed the deployment and first flight of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter. With the world watching the first powered aerial flight on another planet, Ingenuity has accomplished successively more difficult flight tests this month while Percy observes and relays flight data and images to Earth. The location where Percy has been observing Ingenuity’s powered controlled flight is called “Van Zyl Overlook,” after Jakob van Zyl, a leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Ingenuity completed its first flight on April 19, flying to a height of 10 feet, hovering, rotating 90 degrees and then softly landing. Its second flight, on April 22, flew to a height of 16 feet and tested horizontal flight. Its third flight, on April 22, flew to a height of 17 feet, taking a roundtrip ranging up to 164 feet north of its takeoff site. Its fourth flight, on April 30, flew to a height of 16 feet, taking a roundtrip up to 436 feet south of the takeoff site at up to 3.5 meters per second.
Ingenuity took black and white images along the way and color images while hovering at the farthest point before returning to the takeoff site. The images were stitched together to create a 3-D map. Ingenuity completed its fifth flight on May 7 (Sol 75) with a one-way journey 423 feet to the south.
“The fifth flight of the Mars Helicopter is another great achievement for the agency,” said Bob Pearce, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “The continuing success of Ingenuity proves the value of bringing together the strengths of diverse skill sets from across the agency to create the future, like flying an aircraft on another planet!”
Future UAV helicopters will help guide geologic exploration on other worlds.
Ingenuity awaits new instructions from mission controllers. The next phase of testing will involve more challenging one-way flights and maneuvering.
MOXIE Producing Oxygen on Mars
Meanwhile, on April 20 (Sol 60), Perseverance made history on Mars by converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen. The demonstration was conducted in a toaster-sized instrument in the rover’s undercarriage called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. MOXIE’s first oxygen production was only 5 grams. That would be about 10 minutes of oxygen for an astronaut. MOXIE can produce up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour. Practical systems producing oxygen for humans or for rocket propulsion can be scaled up from here. However, energy requirements increase with the task. NASA has demonstrated a small, lightweight fission power system capable of producing 10 kilowatts of electrical power for future human explorers.
Perseverance Instrument Calibration
Perseverance has not moved far from its landing site, but it has given us some tantalizing images of the local geology. Mission planning interpretation from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter data has the landing zone in mafic, basaltic terrane in Jezero Crater. The rock images in the immediate vicinity of the rover seem to be consistent with that. However, according to Rice University Perseverance geologist Kirsten Siebach, “We cannot report rock types at this time. The SuperCam LIBS has not been fully calibrated. Once it is, they can report all the chemistry from the previous observations, but it’s not ready yet.”
Why would such a precisely constructed suite of instruments need time-consuming calibration? Every scientific instrument needs calibration, especially the sensitive instruments on the rover that were violently jiggled during launch and landing. Accuracy is required to identify atomic lines with laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy. For example, the position of the absorption lines of some carbonates can require 1 nanometer accuracy.
Calibration targets for the Mastcam-Z cameras on NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will help get the colors of Mars exactly right, both in visible light as well as in the near-ultraviolet and near-infrared light that the cameras can detect.
The calibration targets for SHERLOC include aluminum gallium nitride on sapphire; a quartz diffuser; a slice of Martian meteorite; a maze for testing laser intensity; and a separate aluminum gallium nitride on sapphire with different properties.
The SuperCam calibration target includes a grid of visual elements for adjusting the focus of the remote micro-imager, and various samples to calibrate SuperCam’s four spectrometers. The RMI can observe dust grains as small as 100 microns. SuperCam spectrometers can identify the chemical and mineral composition of geologic targets on Mars. The SuperCam Calibration Target assembly is mounted on the right, rear of the rover deck. It consists of micro-imager calibration targets and a suite of 22 minerals of precisely known compositions.
Follow the Exploration
The images that Percy’s Remote Micro Imager returned of the distant, 3.5 billion-year-old, deltaic clinoforms remnants are a tantalizing hint of amazing Earth-like geology we may find in the Jezero delta. One source hints that Ingenuity may make exploration hops to follow Percy as the rover explores the delta in search for evidence of possible past life in these ancient lake deposits. You can take the journey.